Existentialism: An Adolescent Hangup

I recently attended a session of a book club whose members are well educated doctors who read everything from Thomas Mann to recent ethnicity centered novels. The book up for discussion was Sarah Bakewell’s “At the Existentialist Cafe”, which tries to pull off the neat trick of being a non-academic history of existentialism. The book focuses more on the lives of the Existentialists than on their various doctrines, the book providing adequate but hardly inspired summaries of those doctrines, ones that are clear enough for this intelligent audience to pick up what they were about. What became clear during the discussion of the book was that the group had no handle on, no feel for, the issues that animated the Existentialists or the solutions they proposed to deal with fundamental issues of human existence, both metaphysical and moral. The session reminded me of how dead Existentialism was as a movement; it has no appeal even though it was so popular in its time, which was also the time when I was an undergraduate and much taken with it. Life Magazine, that emissary of high culture into working class life, covered coffee tables around the country with an issue showing black stockinged rail thin girls at a coffee shop in Paris parading around as Existentialists. What had been attractive about this philosophical movement that made it a cultural rage in the post-war era, a rage that died out by the Seventies? So I try to resurrect what it meant to me.

The Atheistic Existentialism, which is what the philosophers and intellectual historians call it, seemed to me to be a kind of liberation, though some of its roots did not seem very promising because they were about the limitlessness and priority of authority over all forms of freedom.  Soren Kierkegaard recognized the inevitability of choice as a characteristic of the human condition, even though he always opted for the choice preferred by God, the ultimate authority, as when Kierkegaard thought it right that Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son if God wanted him to. Dostoevsky recognized that the human condition produced murderers and saints and revolutionaries and the paradoxical fact that the church, established to rule by love, was also the great enforcer of morality.  

What the Atheistic Existentialists did was take God out of this description and so leave the universe raw and bare with respect both to metaphysics and morality. Jean Paul Sartre, who was the most prominent of the Atheist Existentialists, never mind his German forebearers, gave a vivid description of this point of view about metaphysics in his novel “Nausea”. He describes a tree which is shorn of its category of being a tree and so standing in front of him as this gnarled, strange object, something out of dreams and nightmares. So seeing the world truly is to appreciate the experience of objects prior to them being enclosed in their categories, and there is much to be said for this point of view because it opens up the world to a wholly fresh kind of description, in which one can luxuriate in one’s perceptiveness, so that one can feel the “isness” of being rather than just rationalize about it. Sartre’s magnum opus, “Being and Nothingness”, published in 1938, the same year as “Nausea”, confronts us with a sense of the chasm, the void, of emptiness that precedes the filling up of that void with shape and choice and events. St. Augustine had also wondered what the void was like before creation, but even he was not as vivid as Sartre in giving his readers a feel for the absolute negativity of that state. Most philosophers seem superficial for not invoking that preternatural realm.

The liberation from conventional metaphysics, which is the metaphysics of the already created world of species and categories, also applies to morality, which is also no longer bound by the laws and maxims that guide most of human behavior. Sartre wrote an influential essay in the late Forties entitled “Existentialism is a Humanism” in which he cited his advice to a young man considering joining the Resistance who was worried about who would care for his elderly mother. Sartre said the young man should make the choice and that then the reasons for it would come into focus. You choose first and moralize later. This seemed very brave, launching each of us into a tragic drama every time a significant choice was made, each of us a warrior in that every choice is right even if people disparage it. Every choice is the source of a new wisdom. Did those who betrayed their friends before the House Un American Activities Committee engage in a new form of bravery? Is the adulterer who leaves his wife more courageous than the one who tries to repair the damage already done? There is no answer because there is no moral standard against which to measure the behavior. We have all gone beyond good and evil, just as Nietzsche predicted would happen.

But to engage in Sartre’s rhapsody is to beg the question. Is the young man, in that moment of decision, envisioning his mother’s aged face? Or is he contemplating a future in which he might be captured, tortured, and then put to death? Morality is made by consulting the past and the future, not just the knife edge of the present moment. A decision, whether impulsive or not, reflects on whether it is consistent or inconsistent with a person’s past character or what kind of person he or she wants to be. Wherever moral categories come from, whether they are found through faith in God or extrapolated from the nature of human interaction, one uses them. And the same is true of existence itself. To borrow Spinoza’s distinction, there is the world of ideas and there is the world of extension. Both are real, in their fashion, and you can’t do without either of them. To see a tree is to see the form of the tree as well as its content, its matter. To deny that is merely rhetorical.

And, indeed, Sartre, in the long run, proved longer on rhetoric than on a consistent standard of analysis. He became a Stalinist in the Sixties so as to pick sides between the Anglo American and the Soviet world. He said in 1960 in “Critique of Dialectical Reason” (which I did not read until a few years later) that he had neglected the social side of things in his earlier work. I found this, at the time, astonishing. Was he really saying that stripping down the human condition to its basic fundamentals, shorn of class and caste, down to what every person, slave and aristocrat, young and old, had in common because of their humanity, had just been a mistake? That confession on his part punctured any still remaining pleasure I took from his system because I did know something about the struggles of groups against one another and that did not invalidate a quest to find out fundamental things. I would not be taken in by Sartre’s new rhetorical turn and what shadow that cast on his prior clarity.

I think that what I felt was part of the general cultural rejection of Existentialism during the Sixties. There were other fish to fry. There was the Civil Rights Movement and the Peace Movement (both against the Vietnam War and the ever impending nuclear Apocalypse). These were about politics, pure and simple. The ideology that became important on the Left was that of Herbert Marcuse, whose disdain for both consumerism and Stalinism I, for my part, also found to be rhetorical. Marcuse’s was cavalier in his rejection of Bill of Rights protections for free speech and he made it seem that Madison Avenue was more a danger to America than what Michael Harrington at the time called “the invisible poor”: the whites of Appalachia and the Blacks of the urban ghettos and the Deep South. I was a Franklin Roosevelt New Dealer, which is something I still remain. Bah and humbug to those who do not want to fashion programs to help the poor and other downtrodden. And as for metaphysics? All its problems are reducible to those of social structure, whose character can be read in Shakespeare and Jane Austen and in sociologists too numerous to mention. Existentialism, in a word, is an adolescent hangup.